Catharine Macaulay: Political Writings 
edited by Max Skjönsberg.
Cambridge, 312 pp., £24.99, March, 978 1 009 30744 4
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Until​ the last half-century, reconfigurations of the literary and historical canon largely involved the insertion, repudiation or reordering of a cast of dead white males. Since then, there have been efforts to expand disciplinary canons to incorporate more women and greater racial and ethnic diversity. At first glance, the inclusion of Catharine Macaulay’s writings in the influential Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought looks like a straightforward example of this. But there is a less obvious and more complex backstory.

In the course of a long and distinguished career, Quentin Skinner, the general editor of the Cambridge series, has revolutionised the history of political thought. What was previously an all too canonical discipline – in which a phalanx of political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Marx and Mill engaged in a common pursuit across the centuries – gave way to the insight that political philosophers, just as much as hack pamphleteers, were often responding to immediate issues. Contextualism moved political thought in an anti-canonical direction, highlighting, for example, the lesser-known contemporary antagonists to whom major authors were responding. The discipline still contained a canon of thinkers whose originality, subtlety and complexity entitled them to special attention; but contextualism – as interpreted by its most anti-canonical, historicising adepts – moved the emphasis of political thought away from an abstracted political philosophy towards more precisely situated studies of political argument in particular historical milieux.

Skinner’s overhaul of the discipline roughly coincided with the recognition that in the centuries before academic professionalisation, historical writing – which often supplied crucial precedents that legitimated institutions – was an unduly neglected aspect of political thought. J.G.A. Pocock’s classic work The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957) showed that interpretations of the Norman Conquest, including its implications for law and government, were central to political controversy during the Stuart era. Were the events of 1066 and after a conquest of the native Anglo-Saxons, imposing newfangled feudal tenures from Normandy? Or was the conquest a misnomer, disguising what was merely a change of ruler, not a change of regime? Indeed, at the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, historical questions about England’s ancient Anglo-Saxon constitution and its boasted post-Saxon continuity loomed large. Until the very end of the 18th century, ‘revolution principles’ – what happened at the Glorious Revolution and its significance – were the central topic of English historical politics. Just as much as, say, sovereignty, obligation and resistance, the histories of 1066 and 1688 were core themes in the study of English political thought.

Max Skjönsberg has situated the work of Catharine Macaulay within a significantly remapped domain of political thought, broadened not only to rectify the exclusion of women, but also, courtesy of the Skinner-Pocock revolutions, to include a critic of ‘revolution principles’ whose métier was primarily historical not philosophical. Macaulay enjoyed considerable renown during her lifetime. Her historical works were popular in revolutionary America, and were admired by figures who went on to play a leading role in the French Revolution, including Marat and Brissot. Horace Walpole, the Whig politician and man of letters, lauded her as ‘the female Thucydides’, though when she attacked his late father, the former prime minister Robert Walpole, he backtracked, deciding she was a ‘foolish’ nihilist, ‘levelling all for no end or purpose’. Her writings on female education influenced Mary Wollstonecraft. Understandably, the profile of such a radical figure dimmed at home during the era of conservative reaction to the French Revolution, and in the 19th century her name was eclipsed by that of another – unrelated – historian of the Glorious Revolution, Thomas Babington Macaulay. Catharine Macaulay’s career has, however, come back into focus since Bridget Hill’s 1992 biography. More recently Karen Green’s perceptive study, Catharine Macaulay’s Republican Enlightenment (2020), has drawn attention to the importance of her republicanism, feminism and conception of democracy.

Macaulay’s fame has always rested on her work as a historian. Published in eight volumes between 1763 and 1783, her History of England from the Accession of James I to the Revolution was massive in scale and the dominant occupation of her adult life; a sequel, The History of England from the Revolution to the Present Time, published in 1778, was written in a more relaxed conversational style as a series of letters. More than a quarter of Skjönsberg’s edition is devoted to excerpts from her historical works, which seems reasonable, since they have always had greater prominence than her writings on education or her pamphleteering stabs at Edmund Burke, who once described her as a ‘republican virago’.

Catharine Macaulay was born Catharine Sawbridge in 1731, and died in 1791 as Catharine Graham. She grew up in a prosperous Kentish household, where she was given the run of the fine library. Those who knew the family expressed some surprise that the Sawbridges’ unremarkable governess, Mrs Fuzzard, had nurtured such a paragon of erudition. The uneasy relationship with Whig orthodoxy characteristic of Catharine’s historical writings was partly familial. Her grandfather Jacob Sawbridge had as an MP opposed the Septennial Act of 1716, an effective opiate of the political nation which extended the fallow period between legally required parliamentary elections from three years to seven.

In 1760 Catharine Sawbridge married a widowed Scottish doctor called George Macaulay, and in 1765 they had a daughter. They lived conventionally enough, though she defied certain constrictions, declining to retire with the other ladies after dinner, for example. Macaulay’s first wife had been a friend of Dr Johnson’s, and this brought the radical second Mrs Macaulay into the social orbit of the domineering Tory traditionalist. On one occasion, Johnson – irritated by her convictions – seemingly encouraged her footman to join them at table. Surely she didn’t mind, as she was, after all, a convinced egalitarian? Although contrasting versions of the anecdote circulated, in both tellings Johnson’s boorishness was more conspicuous than Macaulay’s supposed hypocrisy.

Johnson was not alone in behaving this way. After the death of her husband in 1766, Macaulay found that as a single woman without a male protector her radical opinions were exposed to heavier criticism, now spiced with innuendo. In August 1770 the Gentleman’s Magazine published a lengthy and at times sexually suggestive piece of doggerel about her outspokenness – rhyming Macaulay with ‘squally’ – and her friendships with other radicals. Her History received reviews that included sometimes lavish praise, but several reviewers indulged in mansplaining chauvinism.

From around the age of forty, Macaulay suffered from a serious illness that slowed her work. The fifth volume of the History appeared in 1771, but the sixth did not follow until 1781. After the onset of her chronic ill-health, Macaulay and her daughter went to live in Bath in the household of the Reverend Thomas Wilson, a widowed cleric and son of the late bishop of Sodor and Man. The arrangement was respectable, though Wilson was, it seems, smitten: he had a statue of Clio, the muse of history, erected in Macaulay’s honour in his church in London (the outrage of his parishioners prompted its removal). In time, the ministrations of the celebrated Scottish doctor James Graham, known for experimenting with magnetism and electricity, and advocating the benefits of fresh air, cured Macaulay.

According to a gossipy neighbour, the writer Sarah Scott, Graham had ‘etherised and electrified her, till he has made her electric’ – possibly a euphemism for Macaulay’s new-found notoriety. In 1778 the widowed 47-year-old married Graham’s 21-year-old younger brother, William – a purported letter of Macaulay’s to an outraged Wilson, reported at second-hand by Scott, claimed she ‘had been for some years struggling with nature’ and now found it necessary to comply ‘with her constitution’s earnest call’. Scott, who frequented the same social circles, was scandalised by Macaulay’s alleged reference to her sexual needs: ‘If there is any zeal still remaining in the world for virtue’s cause, the pure virgins and virtuous matrons who reside in this place will unite and drown her in the Avon.’ A difference in rank compounded Macaulay’s disgrace: Graham was her social inferior, the second mate of a ship’s surgeon. The spectacular mésalliance generated a lascivious frenzy in print, including an anonymous Bridal Ode on the Marriage of Catherine and Petruchio.

Macaulay’s History had attracted the admiration of patriots in the American colonies. She corresponded with Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, and with Mercy Otis Warren, later herself to become a historian of the American Revolution. In 1784-85 she visited America, meeting George Washington. The next year she visited France, and her final publication, which came out in 1791, was a pamphlet replying to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Macaulay seems to have belonged to what revisionist historians now refer to as the Christian Enlightenment, a movement that stood apart from the more familiar Enlightenment of sceptical or deistic philosophes. The term ‘enlightened’ is used approvingly in Macaulay’s writings, but her radicalism – so daringly evident in political questions – did not extend to matters of religious belief. Her relations with the radical libertine John Wilkes were strained, although she lent him some money during his travails. Macaulay adhered to the Church of England and to what she conceived as a rational Protestantism. Catholicism, by contrast, she regarded as benighted, superstitious and authoritarian, and her belief in a benign deity and his creation also stood at some remove from the dark pessimism of Calvinist theology. Her democratic republicanism was firmly grounded in Christian belief: ‘the doctrine of Christ asserted the equal rights of men.’ And of women too. In her Letters on Education (1790) she argued that males and females were endowed by their creator with similar capacities for intellectual attainment, and theological arguments also underpinned her arguments against cruelty to animals. But Christian revelation had not bequeathed humanity ‘a comprehensive system of ethics … much is left to the progress of enlightened reason.’ The history of civilisation and its successive humanitarian refinements – largely predicated on ‘sympathy’ for our fellow beings – supplemented the basic gospel message. This made her conscious that her own era of partial enlightenment might later be found wanting: ‘if after ages should produce societies refined to an exalted pitch of humanity, with what surprise and detestation will they regard their ancestors of the 18th century.’

At the core of Macaulay’s historical work is a set of strikingly radical deviations from prevailing revolution principles. Whigs celebrated the Glorious Revolution, which they believed had preserved England’s Protestantism, liberties and the lineaments of its ancient constitution, now more firmly established as a system of parliamentary government. Whigs and Tories (who had been equally involved in the events) differed in their attitudes to the Glorious Revolution – sometimes profoundly, sometimes burying their disagreements in compromises and legal fictions – but nobody in the political mainstream openly acknowledged as a precedent for 1688 the revolution of the 1640s, which had culminated in the execution of Charles I. Often described as the Great Rebellion, the earlier revolution was for conservative Whigs a monumental embarrassment, not least on the Feast of the Blessed Royal Martyr every 30 January, a day when some Whig preachers opted for prudent evasiveness on the subject of the regicide.

In her History Macaulay took a very different view. She not only honoured the revolution of the 1640s, but advanced arguments in favour of the regicide. ‘In the suffering prince,’ she suggested, ‘we are apt to overlook the designing tyrant, to dwell on his hardships, and forget his crimes.’ But she argued that it was a mistake to found the case for the execution of Charles I – ‘that eminent act of justice’ – on ‘the narrow bottom of constitutional forms’. Charles’s tyranny had dissolved the tie of allegiance between king and subject, which in turn meant that Parliament ‘on the principles of self-defence … without respect to constitutional forms, had a right to oppose the tyrant to the utmost’. Macaulay welcomed the republic of 1649-53, but not the subsequent Cromwellian Protectorate – Cromwell was a hypocritical usurper who had exploited the republican cause to replace one despotism with another. Worse still, he had perverted the course of English history, having ‘deprived his country of a full and equal system of liberty, at the very instant of fruition’.

For Macaulay the Glorious Revolution was another huge disappointment. It might never have happened had James II stuck to the cynical duplicity of his brother Charles II, who had hidden his Catholic sentiments behind a plausible Protestant front. By the richest of ironies, it was the ‘bigoted sincerity’ of James that had initiated the chain of events leading to England’s ‘deliverance’. At the revolution itself the Whigs had settled the crown on William and Mary without enhancing the liberties of the people. The revolutionary fact of James II’s removal was concealed behind ‘as great a mist of words and terms as possible’, and William III retained prerogatives which were left largely intact. In addition, an ‘inadequate’ Bill of Rights opened the way for further new ‘corrupt abuses’.

Flawed as the revolution was, the Whigs had proved hopeless guardians of its limited achievements. The Hanoverian succession in 1714 was a case in point. The Whigs had every reason to be suspicious of the Hanoverians, who were likely to be ‘strongly attached to the arbitrary system of government which prevails in every German principality’, and at the very least ‘strangers’ to the laws and constitution of England. Instead of devising means of curbing any despotic pretensions, the Whigs introduced the Septennial Act, which Macaulay’s grandfather had opposed. Frequent elections, by contrast, might provide some protection against corruption; though her preference was for rotation in office, as advocated by the mid-17th-century republican theorist James Harrington. From a ‘shallow pretence’ of anxieties about Jacobitism, the Whigs had also authorised a peacetime standing army. Such was Macaulay’s estrangement from mainstream Whiggery that in her accounts of 18th-century British history she praised anti-statist Country Tory opponents of this anaesthetised fiscal-military regime, such as Viscount Bolingbroke, William Shippen and George Heathcote. The Protestant succession in the House of Hanover served, she believed, as a smokescreen to disguise from the people the absence of sound, uncorrupted institutions that might safeguard their liberties.

How did we come to this pass, Macaulay asked herself? Why did the English squander the fruits of their mid-17th-century republican revolution, and then do it all over again in the aftermath of the not so Glorious Revolution? She reached the conclusion that ‘the people of Great Britain always are half stupid, half drunk, and half asleep.’

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Vol. 45 No. 18 · 21 September 2023

It is certainly the case, as Colin Kidd suggests in his piece about Catharine Macaulay, that the Cambridge School approach to the history of political thought has led to a more general openness to non-canonical figures, including certain women, among scholars in that subdiscipline (LRB, 7 September). (Kidd doesn’t mention that Macaulay is only the fifth woman among the more than 120 authors in the Cambridge Texts series, or that another 18th-century British historian, Adam Ferguson, got his volume in 1996.) But it’s worth noting that many women historians didn’t need the Cambridge School to tell them that figures like Macaulay deserved to be taken seriously in the history of political thought.

Kidd himself mentions that it was Bridget Hill’s biography from 1992 which brought Macaulay ‘back into focus’. Hill, like several other 20th-century women scholars who historicised women’s ideas, was a feminist and (until 1957) a communist. She published (with her husband, Christopher) her first essay on Macaulay in 1966, the same year Quentin Skinner’s first methodological article appeared. The essay made clear that Macaulay’s historical writings should be read as a political intervention. In the 1980s, before the Cambridge Texts series existed, Hill produced an edition of Mary Astell’s writing and an anthology of writing by and about 18th-century women. The final chapter was devoted to ‘protest’.

Sophie Smith

Vol. 45 No. 19 · 5 October 2023

Colin Kidd, writing about Catharine Macaulay, rightly argues for the importance of ‘contextualism’ in understanding the debates of the day (LRB, 7 September). We should bear that in mind when thinking about the encounter between Samuel Johnson and Macaulay, where Johnson said that if she was a true egalitarian she should ask her footman to dinner. ‘Johnson’s boorishness was more conspicuous than Macaulay’s supposed hypocrisy,’ Kidd writes, but Johnson was fairly consistent in his despair and amusement at liberal hypocrisy, and his full remarks in this case are interesting: ‘Your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves, but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.’ That’s not so different from his repugnance towards the cloaking of slavery in liberal rhetoric, where the ‘loudest yelps for liberty’ came from the slave-owning Americans. Johnson himself had no problem dining with servants (and of course a main beneficiary of his will was a servant, Francis Barber). One wonders why Macaulay didn’t accept his excellent idea of dining with the footman?

John Mullen
London N4

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